A dialogue with Stephen Anderson – musician, songwriter, and videographer
Photography by MeiLi Smith of Olena Films
Stephen Anderson was born and raised in Fargo – and remained there until 2016 when he moved to Denver. I met him at Bellwether, a coffee and cocktail bar on Colfax Ave. Bellwether is also a social club with a classic barbershop and lounge in the back – which is where Anderson and I talked over whiskey and beers, starting the evening with a concoction suggested by the bartender that involved bourbon and Fernet Branca.
A Wallflower in Flatland | Moving downtown was big, I met musicians and artists – it was eye opening.
Anderson is an only child. His mother was 42 years old when he was born. She worked as a nurse for Veteran Affairs, but retired when Anderson was in 8th grade. His father continues to “sell and service coin wrappers and currency counting machinery,” and hasn’t slowed down. “I think there will always be a commercial world for [his line of work],” says Anderson. “…especially with all the casinos. He stays busy.”
In addition to being an only child, and the significant age difference between himself and his parents, Anderson’s mother and father were private people – they didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. These household elements resulted in an independent, and somewhat isolated, upbringing. “I didn’t really have to deal with conflict since I didn’t have a brother beating me up. It was just my parents and I, and they were reserved. I was a quiet kid – my parents didn’t share, so I thought I shouldn’t either. I’ve done a lot of listening and not much talking. I’m still learning to talk with people.”
“Fargo is kind of a college town…but without the excitement. North Dakota is like a piece of paper…flat and white. There’s about an eight square block radius of downtown Fargo that’s [different]…where the art is…in a very concentrated part of the city.”
North Dakota is the 47th least populated state – beating Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming. It was admitted into the Union on November 2nd 1889, simultaneously with South Dakota. Bordered by Minnesota, Montana, and Canadian provinces, it’s named after a Native American tribe and First Nations people – a branch of the Sioux. It has the most churches per capita of any state, with two-thirds of the population being Lutheran and Catholic.
Fargo was founded in 1871 and is located on the Red River, with its twin city Moorhead, Minnesota directly across. A fire in June of 1893 destroyed 31 blocks, and 64 years later a violent F5 tornado struck the city in June of 1957 – resulting in 12 casualties, over 300 homes destroyed and an additional thousand damaged. Yankees right fielder Roger Maris grew up in Fargo. In 1961, he set the Major League record for homeruns in a season, beating Babe Ruth’s previous record in 1927. The city has the largest population in North Dakota – followed by the state’s capital, Bismarck. Located in the Red River Valley, the surrounding land is some of the richest in the world for agriculture, but it’s also prone to severe flooding. The city has been voted worst weather city in the Midwest multiple times.
“Winters are horrible…you will die out there,” says Anderson. “February is the worst – it will get down to negative 10 [Fahrenheit] or negative 20, but if there’s wind – because North Dakota has the topography of a table – the wind-chill will be negative 40.”
Anderson enrolled at North Dakota State University for an education in broadcast journalism, and moved to downtown Fargo – which proved to be a defining chapter because of the aforementioned “eight square block radius where the art is.” He worked at a theatre as a projectionist, exposed to independent and foreign films – and also the university’s radio station, KNDS. “There were ten of us: a ragtag group that loved bizarre music. We huddled in a tiny, dingy room, broadcasting to maybe a dozen people but having the time of our lives.”
“Moving downtown was big. I wasn’t exposed to arts or displaying creativity as a child. Being downtown in Fargo, I met musicians and artists…it was eye opening.” Also working at the movie theatre and radio station was a girl he knew from high school jazz band – she played piano and sang, and had independent bands of her own (and eventually a collaborative project with Anderson). “To backtrack some, that was when I began pursuing music: playing in high school jazz band, ripping a guitar solo in front of 300 moms and dads. At fourteen, it was invigorating – and I thought, ‘I want to do this all the time.’”
Anderson met his partner, MeiLi Smith, at university – she was working on a documentary about masculinity and the effects of bullying, and selected Anderson to interview. The interview turned into both a conversation and an unexpected connection – starting a lasting, committed relationship that continues today.
Later, under pressure, Smith quickly taught Anderson to use a camera to work as a second shooter for a wedding. Today, they have a videography business for weddings and elopements called Olena Films. “North Dakota and Minnesota is very Norwegian and Scandinavian. There’s this regional joke that centers on Ole and Lena, this elderly Norwegian couple. We were trying to come up with a business name – so we started looking at our roots for something that we could relate to.”
“Visually, MeiLi is much more creative. She has a clear vision, knows how things should look, and a sense of timing – she [directs] the creative aspect and I handle the business logistics. My organization combined with her creativity makes Olena Films.”
Good Vibrations and Proustian Memories | I need to hear a record to death. I want to hear every facet. I want to know every lyric and every player.
Anderson humbly steps back, “I don’t want to slam my parents for not fostering creativity. They bought my guitars and came to all my concerts. Also, one of my formative moments was when my dad bought this CD called Waiting for Columbus by Little Feat. My dad and I were out driving in the rural countryside and he put this CD on, and something about it was transformative. It’s a live album…and sonically amazing.”
Little Feat was formed in 1969 by Lowell George and Bill Payne. The classic line-up of members disbanded in 1979, shortly before George’s death. George led an over-indulgent lifestyle of binge eating, binge drinking, and speedballs (a heroin and cocaine mix). He ultimately died from a heart attack triggered by a cocaine overdose. The band’s style is eclectic, being described as Americana, blues, jam, boogie, Southern, funk, and New Orleans jazz. Outside of Little Feat, George worked with Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, and James Taylor. Bill Payne has worked with the Doobie Brothers, Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, and Toto. In a 1975 Rolling Stone interview, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page stated that Little Feat was his favorite American band. Waiting for Columbus was the band’s first live album, and it was recorded over several shows in 1977.
“I’ve always been drawn to artists that fly under the radar – musicians who aren’t rocking stadiums and get lost in the shuffle. Little Feat were weird – their lyrics were nonsensical and surreal, and their song [structures] were atypical. I didn’t know music could be like this. It wasn’t on classic rock radio – which, at the time, was all I had. There was something about Waiting for Columbus that was momentous – I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Then I thought, ‘What else is out there?’ I had this horrible methodology of going on Wikipedia and reading the liner notes for records…falling down rabbit holes of producers. Eventually, I [was listening to] world music, rap, and R&B. There aren’t many records that I consider 10s, but Waiting for Columbus is a hard ten…and when Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues came out, I thought, ‘this is perfection – this is a perfect record.’ Later, but in a similar baroque-folk vein, there was listening to Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter.”
Fleet Foxes is a folk band that formed in Seattle around 2006, and has consistently received acclaim across their three albums: Fleet Foxes (2008), Helplessness Blues (2011), and Crack-Up (2017). Their second LP was nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, is a former band member and has released several solo recordings to much praise.
Nick Drake was an English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He suffered from depression and increasingly became asocial during his later years. He died in 1974, at the age of 26, from an overdose. He recorded three albums: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), and Pink Moon (1972). Drake’s reclusiveness and refusal to tour resulted in a lack of commercial success during his lifetime. In later decades, he has received increasing recognition and growing posthumous sales.
Questioned about nostalgia, Anderson retold this memory: “I had this collection of Kinks B-sides. My parents owned a farm in Minnesota, and nearly every summer weekend we’d go there to garden, mow, and knock down trees. We had a mower purchased at an auction, and I would ride for hours listening to my Zune on shuffle, and I remember distinctly listening to The Kinks – they take me back to being fourteen, lanky, awkward, and mowing. Songs can be tied to a general time, and some can be pinpoint specific. In 8th grade, I was given a record player – and later, inherited my uncle’s vinyl collection – and I remember sitting in the basement listening to The Yes Album by Yes and being blown away.”
Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks in 1964. Their breakout hit was their third single, “You Really Got Me.” It was described as “a love song for street kids.” Often referred to as “the original punks,” The Kinks influenced the Ramones and The Clash – and were admired by many guitarists, including Brian May of Queen and Pete Townshend of The Who.
The Yes Album was by progressive rock band, Yes. It was their third (and breakout) album – released in February 1971. Yes started as a covers band; this was their first album of entirely original material.
Zune is a now discontinued media player produced by Microsoft. First released in 2006, it was an alternative to Apple’s iPod.
“I need to hear a record to death. I need to hear it in my car to death. I need to hear it in my monitors to death…in my headphones…I want to hear every facet, I want to know every lyric…every player.”
Jade Vases and Silver Dots | I love songwriting, and all aspects of it – but it’s a laborious process. It’s a frustrating pain in the ass.
In July 2016, Stephen Anderson moved to Denver with MeiLi Smith. Wanting to continue creating and performing music, Anderson quickly put out feelers. He started scouring Craigslist, but found it to be a “mess” and a “wasteland.” For a long time, Anderson scrolled through online pages, waiting for an attractive opportunity or project amongst the online classified ads. “I met too many strange people. I ended up jamming at this guy’s house…he was very pushy…it was the worst. [I was] in a basement, with bongs all over, and [I was just waiting] to get out.”
Eventually, Anderson met Ryan Servis – and Jake Moss shorty after. The three of them became the foundation of Jade Vases. Servis is the band’s keyboardist and co-vocalist, and Moss plays guitar. “The biggest connector was Ryan knew who Van Dyke Parks was – he [worked] with the Beach Boys. With Jake, [it was] White Denim. I didn’t know anyone who liked these artists. When I met Ryan and Jake, I thought, This could work.”
They found their bassist, Matt Hedgpeth, by putting up a flyer – Hedgpeth saw the posting while walking his dog. Through various connections, they met their original drummer, Joey Chance. He happened to be on downtime from The Oh Hellos and looking for projects in the interim. The band only had Chance for a limited time until he hit the road. Afterwards, Jade Vases went through a couple drummers “…until we found our boy, Lucas [Huffman].”
By this time in the conversation, Stephen and I worked ourselves down to cheap, but delicious, lagers (Old Style or Olympia, I can’t remember) – and Anderson began talking about creating music, describing his process in juxtaposition to Servis’s approach.
“Watching Ryan [Servis] is fascinating. He has an understanding of the classical song form – which blows my mind because I don’t think that way. He’s what I imagine songwriters who wrote for [other performers] in the ‘50s and ‘60s were like: This is how you write a hit – this is how it’s done. You can ask him to create a bridge in thirty minutes and he knows what to do. I’ll tune my guitar and play around with no direction, feeling my way in the dark. I see many parallels between Ryan and myself – but creatively, we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Jade Vases’ Silver Dots EP was released on October 19th – and is currently available both digitally and on cassette tape. They have an upcoming performance in Colorado Springs with Nina & The Hold Tight. The show will be at The Principal’s Office – in the former Ivywild Elementary School. It starts at 7:30pm on Tuesday, November 6th.
Kristian DePue: Instagram
Jade Vases website
Olena Films: olenafilms.com
Nina and The Hold Tight:
The Principal’s Office: http://www.poativywild.com/